The World War II submarine thriller U-571 is engagingly old-fashioned. It doesn’t try to palm itself off as revisionist or indulge in the kind of jitterbug techno-moviemaking designed to rope in the short-attention-span audience. The only concession to modernity is in the eardrum-vibrating soundtrack, which converts every sonar blip and torpedo whoosh into a Wagnerian cataclysm. Watching this movie makes you feel pressurized, which is as it should be.
Director Jonathan Mostow, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sam Montgomery and David Ayer, is probably gambling that most of his viewers are either unfamiliar with the standard-issue tropes of World War II movies or else harbor an abiding affection for them. Lieutenant Commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) is the skipper of the S-33, a World War I-vintage sub older than most of its crew; Matthew McConaughey is Lieutenant Andrew Tyler, who chafes at Dahlgren’s decision not to assign him his own boat, and who, when peril strikes, rises to the occasion. The Trojan Horse mission Tyler ends up commanding involves the takeover of a battered U-boat by American sailors impersonating a German rescue party in order to seize a top-secret Nazi device for encrypting the Enigma code. As the sub wobbles through hostile waters, rattling and leaking as it dips ever downward to avoid the enemy, its hastily assembled American crew appears to be simultaneously pulling together and coming apart.
Fortunately, Mostow doesn’t play up the hokiness of the assemblage in quite the way that actual WWII-era movies did; we don’t feel as if we’re watching a cross-section of America, or at least of white America, with its Italian, its Jew, its hayseed farm boy and its city tough, and so on. This sort of speciousness still partially survives in some of the recent war movies having to do with that era, including Saving Private Ryan. In U-571 (an unfortunate title that sounds like a hemorrhoid ointment), the crew’s diversity comes not from any multi-culti political correctness but from the sailors’ varying responses to terror. Many of the actors playing the young crew, including Jack Noseworthy, Derk Cheetwood, Dave Power, and Thomas Guiry, are fairly new to movies, and so, thankfully, unlike with many Hollywood-action ensembles, we don’t have to pick our way through a crush of famous faces who are pretending not to be famous. When some of the more recognizable actors turn up – including David Keith as a Marines munitions expert and the omnipresent Harvey Keitel as Tyler’s seasoned second-in-command – their onscreen familiarity confers its own status on their roles.
One of the welcome differences between WWII-era movies then and now lies in their depiction of the adversary. Gone from many of the recent movies is the rampant stereotyping that we saw in the old films, but the enemy is still the enemy. The trick is how to convey that fact without indulging in demonization. U-571 is unevenly successful at this. On the one hand, we have the usual scene in which a German naval officer orders the shooting of a boatload of helpless Allies. But later, when the crew led by Tyler invades the U-boat, the caught-in-the-headlights look on the faces of the German sailors matches the look of their attackers. Most of the combatants on both sides appear to be barely out of high school, and they’re massed, cowering, inside the belly of this beast.
U-571 is no Das Boot, which told its sub story from the German side, but it has its share of depth-charged theatrics. (One of its production designers was art director on the German film.) Mostow made his name with the creepy road-revenge movie Breakdown, which also was a kind of genre throwback. He works in a somewhat sleeker style than the old-time Hollywood hands but still incorporates many of the old-time attitudes. The ad line for his new movie – “Heroes are ordinary men who do extraordinary things in extraordinary times” – pretty much sums up its spirit, which is not jingoistic, exactly, but triumphal. Still, unlike most Hollywood war movies, this one doesn’t look like it was directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mostow never forgets he’s spinning a yarn. U-571 doesn’t skimp on our pleasure in hearing once again lines like “Fix torpedo!” or “Take me to 200 meters!”